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Here’s a simple question.
If I told you there were two words that, as magically as “open sesame,” could unlock new levels of engagement, creativity, collaboration and connection throughout your company; that could inspire deep, sustained loyalty from employees, clients and stakeholders alike; that could help you attract the best minds and talent in your industry; that could drive real business results; and that could position and deliver recognition for your organization as an innovative, inspiring and cutting-edge leader in your field—would you say them?
If I taught you these two words, would you encourage your employees—from entry-level to C-suite—to utter them at the start of every day, every meeting, every memo? Would you prominently place them at the entrance of your offices as a reminder of the power that you, individually and collectively, have at your fingertips, to be accessed anywhere, anytime in the mere millisecond it takes to say or even think them?
You are about to reply, “Of course I would!”
Not so fast, though. Maybe you wouldn’t.
As much as we all claim to want those things—innovation, creativity, recognition, blockbuster business results—we are all veritably hot-wired to avoid the processes and actions that achieve them.
Or, as the author J.M. Barrie more succinctly put it, in his portrait of the innovative, risk-taking young entrepreneur Peter Pan (a remarkably effective leader of Millennials if ever there was one): “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
Particularly after a decade both defined and destabilized by two truly cataclysmic forces in business—the global economic crisis and the disruptive rise and exponentially increasing velocity of digital technology—many organizations have systematically incentivized their employees to doubt whether they can fly.
Consequently, these two simple, powerful words are rarely uttered—especially not by the leaders and managers who are understandably wary of anything they perceive as unnecessary risk. They don’t say them themselves, and they certainly don’t encourage their direct reports and youngest staff members to start flinging them around like Jake Arrieta pitching a no-no.
If they did, things might get a little weird for a minute. (And by “might,” I mean “totally will.”) Because when these words are uttered, rarely does the great stuff come out first.
What comes out first is uncomfortable silence. Then caution. Then bland. Then stupid. Then terrible. Then crazy. Then embarrassed. Then silence again.
And then—seemingly out of nowhere—comes magic. Suddenly, you’re flying.
In an instant, everyone loses their self-consciousness and they start connecting—with themselves and with a deeper level of their own creative thinking.
Sometimes, it’s a short flight with a sudden crash landing. But sometimes they truly soar. And the more they do it, the more comfortable they become with the process, the safer they feel, and the higher they fly.
And it all starts with two simple words.
Those words are, “What if.”
The key word there is “if.”
As opposed to, say, “next.”
“What next” is easy to ask. It’s our natural default—a careful, methodical guide to incremental improvements and small wins.
Don’t get me wrong—those have their place. “What next” is key to achieving the kinds of consistent, conscientious gains and modest wins so critical to the stability and safety that makes “What if” possible.
But they are two very different mindsets. If you, as a leader and as an organization, always stop at “What next?”, the results can be subtle but, over time, dire.
Clients will no longer be dazzled, surprised or impressed. Top-tier talent—internally and externally—will begin to look elsewhere. An endless treadmill of emails, meetings and voicemails will assume priority, and a vortex of mediocrity will form, as effortlessly and naturally as water going down a drain.
And it is so easy to prevent.
But before I challenge you to encourage everyone within your organization to say “What if?”—to make “What If Thinking” a cornerstone of your company—there is something you must do first.
You must get comfortable with bad ideas. You must greet them with a friendly poker face—recognizing them as intrinsic stages in the process that leads to greatness. You can’t believe you can fly and doubt it at the same time. And if you are afraid of bad ideas, you are afraid of success.
But if you are fearless in the face of bad ideas, and inspire those around you to think differently—even strangely—about the challenges and opportunities you face, the words “What if” become unbelievably powerful. And they will lead you to places you never would have imagined.
Brad MacAfee is President of Porter Novelli, North America, Senior Partner and a highly respected business and communications leader—equally praised for his ability to focus on long-term strategic opportunities, as well as his tactical and interpersonal leadership skills. He draws from more than 30 years of public relations experience, on both the agency and corporate sides. At Porter Novelli, MacAfee has held the role of Global Technology Practice Leader, and currently manages the Atlanta office while serving as president for all the agency’s offices in the U.S. and Canada. In addition, he serves as a member of Porter Novelli’s eight-person Executive Committee, with day-to-day management of the agency’s overall direction and strategic focus. Brad has developed strategic marketing and public relations programs for companies such as Hewlett-Packard, T-Mobile, Bayer CropScience, Dun & Bradstreet, Hitachi GST and others. In his current roles, he is actively sought out as a strategic advisor to a number of high-profile clients on corporate reputation, thought leadership, executive visibility, and mergers and acquisition strategies. Follow him on Twitter @macafee
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